Why is the generational wave of telecommuters not moving to rural areas?

Gastonia, NC Correspondent-As a telecommuter for the last 17 years, I think I can offer some perspective on this question. While the idea of a house out in the woods or surrounded by a few acres of pasture or farmland is at times appealing, in the end it’s just not for me, and likely wouldn’t be even if I had the money to not need to work.

I’m hardly a millennial, but I understand their viewpoint. They’ve been raised in a culture where food comes from a grocery store, entertainment involves movie theaters, clubs, restaurants and other venues, high-speed internet is a birthright and city services are available with a phone call. They’re not equipped to live even a tiny footstep off the grid, and prefer the warm embrace of an urban environment where they can be around others of their tribe.

Beyond the creature comforts, telecommuting requires a rock-solid reliable internet connection. As I have experienced on my travels to the mountains of North Carolina and various beach destinations, while the network may be there at your destination, it may not be nearly as reliable as it is closer to an urban center, and if it goes down for any serious reason the repair service will take substantially longer than it would even in the suburbs. This, for a telecommuter, is the equivalent of having a band of rabid squirrels turned loose in the office, rendering productivity nil.

Perhaps as they age and as global internet connectivity becomes a reality, the millennials will tire of their urban enclaves and move outward. As they marry and begin having children (which they’re doing a lot later than previous generations), the constricted spaces they so enjoyed as singletons will lose a large part of their appeal. Perhaps then we’ll see a new breed of pioneers, taking over abandoned or neglected homesteads and staking their claims.

Owatonna, MN Correspondent-The rapid growth of telecommuting—working from home using computer technology to create a “virtual office”—was supposed to allow people to live anywhere they want to live as long as they could get internet connectivity. Workers were expected to move to remote rural areas in droves, which would ease urban congestion and give a boost to struggling rural economies. According to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, the number of regular employees working at home increased 103% from 2005-2014. At the same time, the World Bank reports that the rural population of the United States has decreased from about 19.2% in 2005 to about 18.4% in 2015. Telecommuters are definitely not moving to that idyllic hobby farm a hundred miles from the nearest big city.

Despite all the hoopla around this liberating concept of working from anywhere, the reasons workers have chosen to live close to their employers might be due to several factors. The main one may be the slow spread of high-speed internet access to rural areas. Businesses increasingly rely on the fastest, newest technology to keep pace with competitors. They may not be able to afford a large number of remote workers who can’t be productive due to inferior connectivity.

Another possible reason telecommuters aren’t moving to rural areas is to maintain access to urban amenities such as entertainment, cultural, shopping, and recreational opportunities. Many telecommuters still prefer the fast pace of urban life despite the romantic allure of the quiet house in the country.

The lack of easily accessible “virtual reality” (for lack of a better term) may be another reason telecommuters stay in urban areas. A large number prefer to telecommute part-time and come into the physical workplace the rest of the time to maintain personal and social connections with co-workers. Most people get their identities from their jobs and are social animals who thrive on interpersonal contact. According to statista.com, business miles traveled have been virtually flat for the past ten years. This indicates that companies still value face-to-face contact as much as they did before the advent of telecommuting.

Working remotely from home has many advantages to businesses and employees, but it doesn’t seem that telecommuting will live up to the hype of those who predicted it would revolutionize the way the world conducts business.

Prescott Valley, AZ Correspondent-Millennials, or the next generational wave of telecommuters, are not moving to rural areas because they desire the glamorous life and opportunities that big cities offer. Common sense says that advancements in technology would have made it easier to settle in smaller, less crowded areas, but that is the story with rural areas and small towns now, which have lost younger citizens who have left their smaller communities for college, never to return. A few have gone back but not enough to change the demographics. Far greater numbers have headed directly to the cities and outlying suburbs.

In ever increasing numbers, the next generational wave continues to contribute to the shift from small towns to big cities and suburbs, which isn’t good for small town America, but appears to be the direction of the future with Millennials and others.

They want the opportunities and conveniences that big cities provide rather than an affordable home and property in the country. They prefer more costly urban areas over lower cost rural areas because of the status, lifestyles and opportunities provided by big cities and suburbs, and Millennials are willing to absorb the expenses of living there so they can have closeness to a city and its perks.

Millennials like the city, or being near one, as it all spells success to them. Not all of them relocated from small towns, but most came from areas where they felt limited and trapped as teenagers and wanted to succeed somewhere besides the smaller areas where they may have come from originally. It’s a status thing with Millennials and their former towns just can’t match what they have gained from big city living.

Until smaller towns are able to create an atmosphere of a city’s appeal through replicating some of what a city environment entails, younger generations of career-minded individuals are not likely to return to these areas without those changes in place.

Local city governments in small town rural areas will have to offer what attracts younger generations to their towns and that means creating town centers, safe and walkable neighborhoods, desirable places to live, nightlife, restaurants, cultural centers, high-end stores and good schools. In addition, small towns need to combat the brain drain that has occurred through the flight from small towns as well as recruit and attract those who want to escape the city, build small business and live fulfilling rural lifestyles.

Until the right economic opportunities present themselves in the form of good jobs and stable careers in small towns, Millennials and others won’t be relocating to these areas no matter what kind of community redevelopment has been implemented. Rural areas will have to reinvent themselves to bring the younger generations around to what small town living is really all about.

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